BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners likely figured their year-long case of heartburn over next year's budget was over Tuesday when they voted to approve the spending plan.
If so, they were wrong.
Four of the five elected constitutional officers have notified the county that their employees will not be participating in a health insurance alternative the county hopes to adopt to reduce costs. The Sheriff's Office is insured apart from the county.
The news angered some county commissioners and raises questions about whether unionized county workers will approve a proposed contract in which they will pay more of their own insurance costs.
"It's outrageous,'' Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Thursday. "You're offending the taxpayer, number one. And number two, you're offending the working-class county employee who doesn't happen to work for the constitutionals.''
"I'm disappointed,'' said Commissioner Dave Russell.
"It was my understanding that there was somewhat of an agreement — of course it wasn't in writing — that we'd all take a look at the two-tiered system,'' he said. "Now that we've passed the budget, the constitutionals are balking at it.''
Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai defended the action, saying her workers have taken their share of financial hits already.
"There comes a time when you can't balance this on the backs of employees,'' she said. "I understand if the county is not real happy, but we're trying to do the best that we can.''
The discrepancy is likely to create problems among the county workers who are members of the Teamsters union, an official said.
"It's not going to sit well,'' said Steve Mosely, business agent for Teamsters Local 79.
"Our members are going to vote on the contract, and if they see that the employees of the constitutionals are getting a better deal on insurance, what's the incentive to vote for the contract?''
Mosely said the workers the Teamsters represent are not wealthy people and they will likely look at the bottom line in dollars and cents when they vote on the proposed contract.
"The employees that we represent, they've borne a big part of the burden and kept the county going,'' he said. "This could make a difference in whether the contract passes or not.''
Under the current system, the county pays $670 per month toward the health insurance of single employees, $760 for an employee plus a spouse or child and $830 for an employee plus family.
The new program negotiated with the Teamsters has just two tiers, drops the contribution toward single coverage to $630, and pays $720 for an employee plus others.
The plan is expected to save the county $213,088. If the constitutional officers adopted the same plan, that would save an additional $42,347, according to Cheryl Marsden, administrative services director.
But in an e-mail to Marsden on Wednesday, Nicolai explained that her office as well as Tax Collector Juanita Sikes, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams had all decided to stick with the three-tier system.
"In making this decision, consideration was given to the significant financial effect of the medical/dental insurance premium increase that will be passed along to employees as well as the insufficient time to fully investigate another benefit dollar alternative,'' Nicolai wrote.
Nicolai said Thursday that no promise was made to follow the county's lead on insurance. Insurance premiums were going up 13 percent, and the information on the proposed changes came just in the last month, giving her staff no time to make an informed decision, she said.
Commissioner John Druzbick dismissed that assertion, noting that discussions about adjusting benefit packages had been going on since the last budget year.
"They were aware of what we were attempting to do,'' Druzbick said.
Mazourek pointed out that the insurance premiums were increasing, county employees must now pay 3 percent for their retirement and, again this year, there were no raises. "That's quite a hit all in one year,'' he said.
He also noted, "I've reduced my staff by 20 percent and put a lot more responsibility and work on my remaining staff.''
Williams said she and the others will look at benefit reductions in the next year, but at this time, "I didn't want to take away anything they already have.''
Sikes, whose employees must pay for more of their benefits than the county's, said sticking with the higher benefit dollars for her workers was "the right thing to do.''
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said he would have liked to see the constitutional officers adopt the cost-saving plan but noted "they are constitutional officers,'' so they decide how to run their offices.
Stabins called the constitutional officers' decision "an insult.''
"We cannot allow this arrogance,'' he said. "What they are doing here is the first salvo in the 2013 budget war. What it means is that whatever this costs the taxpayers to do this for the next 12 months, we must commit as a board that we will slash spending on the constitutionals.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.